International Order & Conflict

Libya: Predation, Protection and Political Change

in Program

On March 17th, the UN
Security Council authorized “all necessary measures…to protect civilians and
civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.”
Its resolution says nothing of regime change in Libya
and in his speech on March 28th the president ruled that out as a US military goal, while endorsing it as a US policy goal.
But absent a plan for political transition, the risk grows daily that Libya’s
rebellion will pitch into anarchy.


By William Durch – The military actions still underway against armed forces
loyal to Muammar Qaddafi are, in some respects, unprecedented measures to
protect a population from the whims of its political leadership. But in several
other instances, Security Council resolutions have authorized UN member states,
other organizations, or UN peacekeepers to take all necessary measures, or use
all necessary means, to oust a regime in violation of its agreements (Haiti,
1994) or protect civilians from the threat or reality of violence, as at
present in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur, and Côte d’Ivoire. In Congo, the UN supports the government, in Darfur
operates with its reluctant and wily consent, and in Côte d’Ivoire sits in opposition to
the ancien regime, defeated in elections but refusing to admit it. The international
community has slapped sanctions on the erstwhile government, clearly sided with
the electoral winner, and reinforced UN peacekeepers already deployed there,
but has thus far limited its use of force to clear instances of self-defense
and civilian protection. In Libya,
on the other hand, the international community has gone beyond sanctions to the
heavy use of air power under Resolution 1973 but without the further
legitimating force of elections to spotlight a clear political “change to”
regime. Because Res. 1973 does not acknowledge the larger struggle, its implementation
cannot resolve that political struggle and instead has accelerated it. The US and its allies and partners are meeting today
in London to
begin to sort it out.  They have little
time to lose.

has been rather open about the political endgame from the beginning, whereas
the United States
has tried to separate the military campaign from the political change that both
the president and secretary of state have declared is desirable. Thus, France recognized the “Libyan National Council”
based in Benghazi
a week before the Security Council passed Res. 1973 and it launched air strikes
to protect the LNC on March 19th, even as the coalition was meeting to plan the
campaign. Ten days later France
remains the only country to recognize the LNC as Libya’s legitimate government. It
is not at all clear, however, by what means of internal validation that group
claims to rule either the eastern coast of the country or the whole of it. Nor
is it clear whether its role is uncontested within rebel ranks. Its command and
control of rebel forces appears to be weak and those forces move forward by the
grace of coalition/NATO air strikes, a parting of the waters that will soon
reveal cities full of people – mostly civilians – with whom they disagree
politically, who belong to other tribes, or who still support Qaddafi.

The Geneva Conventions, which are geared toward international
armed conflict, distinguish civilians from members of national armed forces (who
bear identifying insignia, e.g., uniforms, as well as arms). Interpretations of
the Conventions and other elements of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) by
the International Committee of the Red Cross extend the logic of IHL to
“non-international armed conflict,” arguing that civilian status – and thus
protection from direct armed attack – applies not only to those who never take
up arms against the state but to those who do so in self-defense “against violence
prohibited under IHL.” Qaddafi forces’ indiscriminate attacks on Benghazi and other Libyan
cities clearly constitute such violence. Libya’s rebels, on the other hand, by
now engaged “continuously” in armed action against Qaddafi’s forces, can be
considered “armed groups” not protected from attack under IHL, that is, not

As the Qaddafi regime’s fighting forces are crippled, its
mercenary and arms supplies cut off, and supplies do reach the armed opposition
(Res. 1973 allows such exceptions), then continuing coalition/NATO action
releases rebel forces that would otherwise be tied down defending civilian
populations in rebel-held areas. Protecting or furthering their operations
falls outside the scope of action authorized by Res. 1973 unless the Qaddafi
regime per se is interpreted as an imminent threat to civilians anywhere in Libya. That
logic leads directly to regime change as a humanitarian as well as a political

In his address, the president rejected the use of outside
military force to achieve regime change. Understandably given the high costs of
Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has tended to straddle
the fence on political endgames in the face of recent political upheavals in
the Arab world. Military action against Qaddafi forces may set a precedent or,
as the president suggested, be a rare combination of humanitarian need and
international consensus on the politics and military feasibility of the operation.
largely coastal targets are, for example, well-positioned to be struck by air
power operating safely out of ample, nearby land bases.

So Libya
is cast as a unique case in the turmoil sweeping the Middle
East and regime change is cast as the “Libyan people’s”
responsibility, with possible support, albeit non-military, from outside actors.
But without continued air support, not only of civilians but of rebel forces,
the present hope of change for the better in Libya will fade. Moreover, there is
a risk that rebels may themselves engage in mass reprisals against civilians,
as loosely commanded, poorly paid militias have a way of doing. Analysts and
politicians alike may disagree as to appropriate next steps. But to truly protect
the people of Libya, the international community seems to have a pressing
interest in either supporting a Libyan political alternative that it hopes and
trusts will provide legitimate and vital governance, or in finding such an institutional
alternative itself and the sooner the better.

Photo Credit: An AV-8B Harrier jump jet returns to USS
Kearsarge for fuel and ammunition resupply in support of Joint Task Force
Odyssey Dawn, March 20, 2011  (USMC photo by Lance Cpl. Michael S. Lockett)

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